A woman photographs memorial lanterns for overdose victims on a bridge in downtown Caribou. Credit: Hannah Catlin / The St. John Valley Times

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Lydia Craft, D-Newcastle, represents District 46 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a social worker.

Last year, alongside colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I had the privilege to vote yes on the strongest Good Samaritan Law in the nation. This was no small feat.

For years, our state has been grappling with an overdose epidemic that is increasingly taking the lives of more and more Mainers. In response, harm reduction experts and community leaders across the state mobilized to send a clear message to the state legislature: To combat the overdose crisis, you must implement policies that value the lives of people who use drugs. The message was heard loud and clear, and in a historic move, Gov. Janet Mill’s signed LD 1862 into law which provided expanded legal protections for people at the scene of an overdose.

Today, that law is in jeopardy — and we must do everything we can to protect it.

Introduced earlier this month, LD 714, An Act to Expand the List of Crimes that Do Not Qualify for Immunity Under Maine’s Good Samaritan Laws Concerning Drug related Medical Assistance, would squander the progress achieved by the state’s recovery community and rollback much needed protections for those at the scene of an overdose. This is a step backward for all Mainers.

If people can be charged with drug crimes when they call 911 at the scene of an overdose, many simply will not do so. That’s because they are often caught in an impossible dilemma. As witnesses to illegal activity or as individuals enabling or participating in it, people are forced into a scary choice between saving a life or being sent to jail. With overdoses continuing to skyrocket, this is not a chance we can take — yet it is one LD 714 is willing to attempt anyway. To the contrary, we must ensure that everyone knows the current law and its protections exists.

This is the stark reality: The punitive approach to drug use has failed time and time again, wasting taxpayer dollars, filling our prisons with non-violent offenders, and disproportionately targeting Black and Brown communities. In the crucial moments when a person is experiencing a drug overdose, there’s a limited opportunity to respond quickly and save a life. Every bystander should feel empowered to step into a health emergency and shouldn’t have to think twice about their freedom. Our current Good Samaritan law helps do just that.

Studies indicate that a nationwide pattern of lower opioid-related overdose death rates among states that have enacted these laws, both compared to deaths prior to a law’s enactment and death rates in states without Good Samaritan laws. Further, data demonstrates that people are more likely to call 911 if they are aware of the laws that protect them against arrest and prosecution.

In 2022, we saw an almost 12 percent increase in overdose deaths in Maine. That is over 700 lives lost to a preventable cause. It’s clear we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to finally curb this crisis. We must prioritize the health and well-being of every Mainer by finally closing the door on a punitive and archaic approach to drug use. That is why I am urging my colleagues to vote nay on LD 714. The lives of our community are on the line.